How two Bengal universities can play a role in deciding fate of the state

At Burdwan, the universe shifts from that at the Jadavpur University.

 |  IST  |  6-minute read |   24-04-2016
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The distance between Burdwan University in Bardhaman town and Jadavpur University in Kolkata is a mere 100km, but travelling from the former to the latter is like stepping out of a pressure cooker and breathing in the released steam, deeply.

Burdwan University (BU)’s 3,000-odd acres are a legacy of one of West Bengal’s wealthiest former zamindars, the Maharaja of Burdwan. It’s a beautiful campus, with a museum stacked with the ex-Raja’s treasures, including several eighth-ninth century Vishnu, Shiva and Buddha statues.

Right on the Grand Trunk Road, the university is an educational linchpin for this part of Bengal, attracting students from mofussil towns and villages as far away as Tarakeshwar (85km away), Jamalpur (70km away) and Shibaichandi (50km away).

Students spend a couple of hours each way on local trains to get to classes, and return the same way home each evening. They don’t seem any worse the wear; they know that getting a college education is often the acme of the family’s collective efforts.

Jadavpur University (JU) is much more what you would expect a student space to be. There’s an easy mixing of the sexes. The students wear what they like. Most students live in Kolkata.

The less superficial differences are even more striking. At BU, those more open to challenging orthodox thought are students of Economics. As if data have become a tool to peel away the layers of propaganda that has been doled out to them for years - for the last five years by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that has ruled Bengal, and earlier, for 34 years, by the Left Front.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee is the worst thing to happen to West Bengal

At JU, it’s enough to walk down a hundred yards in front of the arts and humanities department to get a sense of the ferment on the campus. The students wear their university’s progressive reputation lightly.

Only a year ago they had forced chief minister Mamata Banerjee to change the vice-chancellor, because he had supported the decision to bring in the police to crack down on the students protesting the molestation of their peer inside a hostel.

And in February this year, in a rerun of events, in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists from outside the university entered the campus to tear up posters demanding “azadi” for Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland.

“The concept of nation is different from the concept of nation state. The former is based on the person’s imagination, the latter incorporates sovereignty, constitution, territory and population... One political party cannot order that it is only their version of nationalism that the people should follow,” says Philosophy student Devapam Ganguly.

Also read: Yechury has ensured CPI(M)-Congress will give Mamata tough fight in Bengal

At Burdwan, the universe shifts. Students here have heard of JNU Students' Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar as well as JU’s protests against the Mamata government. Largely, they disagree with both.

“It’s all very well to protest, but how can you demand 'azadi' when your own jawans are fighting with their lives on the borders? How can you put up posters saying Afzal Guru cannot be hanged, when none other than the Supreme Court declared him guilty? Nationalism, yes, but not at the cost of the nation,” insists a History student.

ju_042516020548.jpg The JU students had forced chief minister Mamata Banerjee to change the vice-chancellor. 

A girl student, who avers that the Bengali culture is progressive, admits, “You will not find in Burdwan University anyone who will refuse a gold medal just like the girl at Jadavpur University did last year, that too from the hands of the vice-chancellor.” Why not? Wouldn’t the students union at BU protest indignities against their own mates?

A uneasy silence follows. Turns out that the BU Students Union is packed with TMC followers. That during the election this year, and every year since the TMC came to power in 2011, the Opposition was present only in name, which meant that the pro-TMC election was pre-ordained.

It had been exactly the same when the Left Front was in power for 34 years, with the pro-CPI(M) Students' Federation of India (SFI) managing students bodies across the state. When the TMC dislodged the Left, it simply adopted its policies, including total control over students unions at several universities, like BU.

Also read: In Bengal's Congress heartland, TMC is losing favour

By now a small crowd has gathered. “We come here to study and we return home after our classes end. We don’t really have the luxury of debates, like students do at JNU and Jadavpur. We are constantly worried about what we will do when we leave college. If we will find jobs, or not,” says Biplab.

"Do you see the battery-operated rickshaws popular in Burdwan? Well, some of them are now run by Masters graduates from BU," adds Sulekha.

“You must understand,” says Asghar earnestly, “We have nothing.” Muses Anirban, a postgraduate student of Economics, “We used to have debates like these once upon a time at BU.

But no longer. Now we are busy with more pressing issues.” The make-or-break Assembly election underway in the state has already passed these students by. At the threshold of life, they are cynical far beyond their years. Kanhaiya Kumar and BR Ambedkar and the importance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to India are elements of a debate already deemed irrelevant.

What is desperately relevant is the need to find a job, any job. The basic requirement to become a teacher now is a two-year BEd degree, and that costs Rs 1.4 lakhs. Last year, several managed to scrape the money together, only to find that the exam was cancelled, because the question paper got leaked.

Only 100km further west and in another universe, the excitement of voting in a real election, some for the first time, is getting to the students at the autonomous JU.

Some are determinedly Left-of-Centre, but others don’t hesitate to admit they had once been singularly impressed by Narendra Modi, in 2014. “He’s so smart, he wears such smart clothes, and now he’s even got a wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s!" exclaims Ipshita.

Economics student Pragya, who would like to study abroad (but return home to work), points out that the Kanhaiya Kumar episode in JNU could have been handled much better.

“I am against the politicisation of the campus... The ‘Narada’ sting in which TMC leaders were caught taking bribes was very disturbing... Modi has definitely improved the image of the country abroad but I didn’t like the way the BJP came out against eating beef. They are not my parents, are they? How can something I eat define me?” she adds.

Dibanjana, studying Comparitive Literature, points out: “The TMC is the worst, but the Left is the next worst thing to happen to us, they definitely need faces beyond Biman Bose. He was very rude to Mamata Banerjee and to women in general in the last election, when he said the TMC is “inside your sari’... But now it seems that Anubrata Mandal (TMC head in Birbhum who warned that if the TMC was not brought back to power, social benefits would be withdrawn) is behaving exactly like them..."

Shonpol pipes in, “The thing is, you expect this from the TMC, but not from the CPM, do you?”

And so it goes in West Bengal and its university campuses.


Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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